The Work of Mourning

Jacques Derrida

Pastoral Reflections on Jacques Derrida’s The Work of Mourning.
In his beautiful series of reflections on the deaths of his friends and contemporaries (figures such as Michel Foucault, Gilles Deleuze, and Sarah Kofman), Jacques Derrida writes of the work of mourning. It is work of sorts because we must bring to it the judgment and the skills that we have acquired in the course of a life of preparing for our own and our loved ones’ deaths. In another sense it is not a work, because the more we try to control or define mourning, the more elusive it becomes.
Derrida castigates his own tendency within his eulogies for his friends to remake them in his own image – to offer a final trompe-l’oeil to foreground his own work. As he writes, he finds within himself a tendency “still to maneuver, to speculate, to profit or derive some benefit, whether subtle or sublime, to draw from the dead a supplementary force to be turned against the living.”
As a priest, I have tended to enough deathbeds and presided at sufficient funerals to recognize the moral peril that Derrida describes. How easy it is to succumb to a sense of heroism as one “selflessly” attends to the dying and the bereaved. And nowhere is the falsification of speech more tempting and more inevitable than in a eulogy, for a eulogy invites us to distort the life of the dead as though all their secrets had been given up, as though they are now, upon death, immediately and finally transparent to us, which is, of course, is patently untrue.
And yet we can take comfort in the fact that Derrida has written a book such as this one, in spite of mourning’s snares and dangers. For mourning is by its very nature not simply a private act, but also a public and a linguistic one. In spite of the dangers of mourning, we nevertheless must mourn. And we must do so through our particular and public work, which in the case of ministry is the work of language. Just as the gravedigger must overcome rock and ice and clay and forge from the ground an adequate resting place, so too must we ministers, we priests, and all those entrusted to the delicate and fraught work of mourning.
Image: Cinzia Giordano,

As a priest within the Anglican Church, I have become, like most of my colleagues, a professional mourner. This is so not only because my congregations are aged, but also because my church is dying. The work of mourning goes against all the natural instincts of a professional minister. We are to build churches, to raise up leaders, and nourish faith. The vitalistic metaphors abound. But rarely do we confront the grim fact that most of us are engaged in relentless palliative care. That it will only take the death of one generous matriarch or patriarch, or a rather entrenched squabble to seal our parishes’ fate. Everywhere I turn, whether it be in individual parishes, dioceses, or theological schools, the picture is the same. There is very little immediate hope for resurrection.
And so there is another type of denial that we adopt and I believe it is a far more dangerous than the illusion that the dying member or the dying parish will miraculously survive. There is also denial of death that clergy fall prey to when death has become too commonplace. When the singularity of the parishioner or the closure of the church is subsumed into a general form of mourning. Derrida warns us against this, too: “One should not develop a taste for mourning, and yet mourn we must. We must, but we must not like it –mourning, that is mourning itself, if such a thing exists.” Clergy can easily become too familiar with death, too accustomed to its phases and rhythms as though a discrete death were simply a bit part in a larger drama. But of course it is not. Death is singular, not because we each die as individuals (pace Heidegger), but because the dead are always irreducible to the impact of their lives upon others, but equally to any solitary or fixed identity.
Mourning itself is in a certain sense quite the opposite of work. Because mourning is also something of a gratuitous event. To do it correctly is to set aside all the acquired skills honed by the professional minister. To do it correctly is to remember the dead in their singularity, in their messiness, in their relationships with oneself and with others. As Derrida writes in his inimitable way:

“In order to succeed [mourning] would well have to fail, to fail well. It would well have to fail, for this is what has to be so, in failing well. That is what would have to be. And while it is always promised, it will never be assured.”

The work of mourning is to become adept at failure. It is best done, and can only be sustained, through surrender. Derrida cites his friend, Belgian poet and art critic Max Loreau, who captures something of this. May we, the entirely incompetent mourners that we are, find in this our consolation and our life’s work:

“Memory without knowing it opens…. so that the intimate might break through.”

Jane Barter is a priest in the Diocese of Rupert’s Land, who is currently serving St. Peter, Dynevor (Selkirk), St. Phillip (Hodgson), and St. Matthew (Peguis). She is also Professor of Religion and Culture at The University of Winnipeg.


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